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Environmental Standards Give the United States an Edge Over China

Chinese Citizens Still Facing Health Threats We Addressed Decades Ago

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This Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day, a great opportunity to take stock of the progress we are making around the world on environmental protection. Here in the United States, much can be learned by comparing our environmental progress to China, where they are just now starting down a path we took back in 1970.

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Taking stock of our environmental progress is particularly important in an election year, when some politicians and political hopefuls are pointing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an example of wasteful government spending and overregulation. The reality is that our regulatory system is what separates us from the citizens in China, where air pollution and lead poising are the norm and environmental problems corrode the quality of life in ways that we have not faced in decades.

We certainly hope China manages to address its environmental problems, not only for the sake of the Chinese people but also because China’s problems harm us as well. China is now the largest contributor to global carbon dioxide pollution, and jet streams are bringing some Chinese pollution to the United States. Mercury emissions from China’s coal-fired power plants are building up in U.S. watersheds, for example, and particulate pollution from China appears to be inhibiting rain and snow production and reducing water supplies in some California cities.

At the moment, however, our environmental protection regime is far superior to China’s, which gives us a competitive edge. Our children are growing up healthier and arguably smarter (since lead and mercury poisoning impairs brain development), and we will probably live longer and face lower cancer risks. Our environmental regulations give U.S. businesses more incentives to innovate and develop cleaner, more efficient production processes that will be fueling our economy long after China’s current high-polluting factories close their doors. We fought hard to build up the system that is now bringing these benefits, and it is not something we want to give up.

Building an effective environmental protection regime

Environmental pollution is a negative byproduct of some production processes, particularly those processes that use older, less efficient technology. In a market economy, companies always have a natural profit incentive to make money—the more they make, the more executives and employees get to keep and spend on themselves—but they do not always have a natural incentive to protect the environment by switching from outdated, dirty technologies to cleaner, more sustainable versions. That is because environmental costs are born by the local community, and the local community has no say over company production decisions. One way we can ensure companies take environmental costs into account is to put a price on carbon. Another is to use government regulations. Thus far, the United States has not succeeded in rolling out a nationwide carbon pricing system, but we do have a nationwide environmental regulatory system. To be effective, that type of system needs three critical components.

First, we need standards that stipulate the amounts and types of pollutants we are willing to accept in our air, water, soil, food, and consumer products such as children’s toys. Ideally, these standards should be based on public health impacts rather than on what industry representatives claim they are willing and able to meet. The U.S. Clean Air Act gets this right. Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency set strict standards for six of the worst pollutants based on what scientific evidence tells us we need to do to protect infants, children, pregnant women, and other sensitive individuals. Congress passed amendments to the act in 1990 that called on the agency to reduce other hazardous pollutants, and in December 2011 the agency issued new standards for mercury pollution due to mounting evidence that mercury is accumulating in watersheds and fish, building up in human bodies due to fish consumption, and inhibiting brain development for children exposed to excessive mercury in the womb or at a young age.

Second, we need regulations to turn these science- and health-based environmental standards into guidelines for companies to follow. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for half of all mercury emissions in this country, so the Environmental Protection Agency’s December 2011 mercury legislation included the first-ever mercury emission reduction rules for power plants. The agency spent years developing the new emission rules, and it gives power plants four years to bring their facilities into compliance. Some power companies have already voluntarily reduced their mercury emissions, so the new rules mean that their competitors now must also do so. The agency estimates that the resultant pollution reductions could avoid up to 11,000 premature deaths annually and add up to $90 billion in health benefits every year to our economy by 2016.

Third, we need an environmental government agency that has the authority and the resources to enforce these regulations. If there is no monitoring, no enforcement, and no penalty for violations, then companies have little incentive to comply. Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has that authority.

Before 1970 we did not have this system. We left most environmental protection to our state governments, and that did not work well. When environmental standards and regulations vary from state to state, that creates a race to the bottom because state governments compete with one another to attract companies—and therefore tax revenue—to their states. Just as some U.S. companies build facilities with dirty production practices in developing countries with lax regulatory regimes (such as China), under our old system companies would flock to dirty states, which put pressure on the cleaner states to loosen up and sacrifice public health and environmental protection so as to bring in tax revenue. The end result was that we faced health and environmental problems similar to what China is dealing with today.

That changed because the American people demanded a better system. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted in the 1960s that local citizens joked that “anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown … he decays.” The river carried so much oil and debris that in June 1969 it erupted into flames. That fire triggered a tidal wave of citizen pressure to fix the state-based environmental protection system, and the following year President Richard Nixon signed the 1970 Clean Air Act—our first national-level environmental protection law—and created the Environmental Protection Agency. This led to passage and enforcement of other laws that form our environmental safety net, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and laws governing the disposal and clean up of hazardous wastes.

Environmental protection still lacking in China

China’s current environmental protection system looks a lot like what was in place in the United States before 1970. The national government in Beijing issues fairly stringent environmental standards and regulations, but they leave all of the actual monitoring and enforcement to the local-level governments, and those government officials are engaging in a race to the bottom, just as state and local officials did in the United States decades ago.

China is further hindered by the fact that it is still an authoritarian regime. Environmental officials cannot be everywhere—in big countries such as the United States or China, environmental officials cannot monitor every factory all the time. In the United States and other democracies, people fill the gap. If local communities in our country believe local factories were polluting the environment, they could call up the Environmental Protection Agency, but that is not all they can do. They can also file lawsuits, alert the media, or alert an environmental activist organization. Here in the United States, we have an entire community of environmental lawyers, journalists, and activists that help the Environmental Protection Agency do its job.

In China, all of these citizen-led efforts are lacking because they all are a potential challenge to Communist Party authority, so the party keeps lawyers, journalists, and nongovernment organizations under tight political constraints. Unfortunately, the Chinese people pay a high price for this weak environmental governance system. Cancer rates are soaring, now the leading cause of death in China. Chinese children are also exposed to higher amounts of lead and mercury pollution than their counterparts in the west, and that means they likely have lower average IQs and more neurological and behavioral problems.

These problems are common in nondemocracies where people cannot vote and leaders can hide information. In China, for example, lead pollution information is often tightly controlled. Many Chinese citizens do not know that their children are suffering from high lead blood levels because the media generally cannot report on those issues. In some cases, local officials even forbid doctors and hospitals from providing accurate test results. Even when the citizens do find out about these pollution problems and health impacts, they have no access to effective institutions such as elections or unbiased judicial courts to sanction their government leaders, so there is not much they can do about it.

Don’t believe the hype: Environmental protection is not antibusiness

It is important to note that despite what some politicians and fossil-fuel industry interests in the United States may claim, a dirty environment is not good for business. In fact, environmental regulation actually strengthens our economy. When the air and water are cleaner, people are healthier. That means we can spend less on health care and lost productivity due to illness, and more on the products and services produced by businesses and, more broadly, on building good foundations for the future by investing in education, infrastructure, and science and technology research and development.

Most American companies are loath to admit they seek out places to manufacture based on the level of pollution they can create at the expense of nearby communities. But it is certainly true that many companies send their operations to China to take advantage of low labor costs and lax environmental regulations to increase profit margins, particularly on lower-value-added manufacturing, where margins are often slim. And yet it is also true that environmental pollution is actually threatening economic growth in China.

All of China’s key manufacturing sectors, for example, require water as a critical input. From coal mining to semiconductor manufacturing, the Chinese economy is water intensive. Problem is, global warming is causing droughts that are depleting China’s water sources, and the remaining supplies are becoming so polluted that many provinces are struggling to find enough water to keep their factories running. Chinese officials report that around 300 million rural citizens—the size of the U.S. population—do not have access to safe drinking water, that most urban groundwater is unfit for human consumption, and that 20 percent of China’s rivers are “too toxic even to touch.”

Here in the United States, flaming rivers and contaminated drinking water triggered public bipartisan pressure for change, and the result was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and nationwide laws such as the Clean Air Act.

The Chinese public feels the same way, but in an authoritarian system, they do not have the same ability to push for change. When it comes to environmental protection, democracy is our biggest asset, and the results are good for American people and for American businesses across the board.

Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst on China energy and climate policy at the Center for American Progress. Jeffrey Cavanagh is an Intern at the Center.

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